Situated in the south-west of Gabon, the Punu are part of a group of peoples known essentially for their white masks. These objects, which continue to impress collectors and enthusiasts of African art, fascinated Western artists at the start of the 20th century. The idealized realism of the face covered with white clay, the slightly narrowed eyes, the mouth with finely-edged red lips, and the sophisticated head-dress composed of several locks of braided hair are some of the stylistic features of these masks.
The volume explores the context of ritual use of these important objects, which the Punu and related peoples would bring out for their dances, one of which is called mukuyi
. The masks belonged to the bwiri
, a secret society of men, and those wearing them were only chosen among initiates. They would perform acrobatic dances on stilts, most frequently at funerary rites and in honor of the ancestors embodied by the masks. This study of the Punu traditions and of their overlapping with other peoples in this region of southern Gabon is also pursued through an examination of other, far less well-known objects, such as the guardian statues of the bones of the deceased, amulets, musical instruments, and other elements of their material culture.
Objects featured in the book are drawn from international collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Natural History Museum of Buffalo, New Orleans Museum of Art, The National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution), Art Institute of Chicago.